Rich Web Clients

PDF DownloadWhat is it? We’re not talking about wealthy Internet customers. This is about providing computer users with the same “rich” features in their browser that they get with Microsoft Windows. It includes such functions as dragging icons between folders, resizing windows inside the browser, sorting data easily and the like.

Why is it necessary? To bring using the Internet up to the level of general computing. The user interface took a giant step backward in the rush to the Web, according to Jakob Nielsen and other usability experts. You can’t work with the data in a browser in any live sense. All you can do is fill in forms and click on buttons or links and wait for another page.

Who came up with it? Today, the best-known example is Macromedia’s Flash format. If the Netscape browser and Microsoft Internet Explorer had stayed neck-and-neck in market share, of course, each would have likely created its own rich client system.

How does it work? Picture the Internet server as an architect, the “rich” Web browser as a builder and the user as a customer. The customer asks the architect for, say, a house; the architect develops the plans and sends it to the builder, along with directions on how to get the materials (the data). The builder obtains the materials and arranges them at the building site (the browser window) according to the plan. If the plan calls for something the builder hasn’t made before, the architect will also send the appropriate tools and instructions on how to use them. The user might make certain requests about the materials—make all the cabinets cherry wood and all the charts sorted by date—but rarely gets involved in the plumbing.

By contrast, today’s non-rich-client Web software places much more responsibility on the architect, who must build and send the entire house. If the customer wants anything changed, the builder does nothing but act as a messenger to the architect, who rebuilds and resends an entire house.

But there’s still a Web server running the application’s business logic? Yes, in most cases. But only the view of the results is sent down to the client. In existing Web applications, results appear as an HTML page, with its verbose tagging repeated on every page. With a rich client system, the only thing sent is the next data needed.

What are the business benefits? Less bandwidth is consumed. Users also work more efficiently, since data can be refreshed almost instantly, redrawn into a chart or resized into a window that concentrates on a particular set of results.

Who’s using it? The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado handles its room reservations on a single page that indicates whether the room is available, reserves it and executes the credit card transaction. Ditto for Washington, D.C.’s Watergate Hotel. The Sheraton Hotel chain is using a rich client interface to provide services to guests. These hotels are finding competitive value in the user interface. Macromedia and about a dozen small companies, such as Droplets, Laszlo Systems, Isomorphic Software and Altio Inc., sell these systems.

Is Microsoft going to take over this space? It’s not likely. Microsoft appears to be more interested in its InfoPath (née XDocs) technology for information capture and sharing than in the rich Web client approach.